Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Let’s make a deal — More people shopping bargains leads to healthy retail weekend

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Shoppers’ concern about rising bills, worry over the fate of their investments or overall fear of a national economic recession were no match for the allure of two-for-one sales and special deals over the weekend as retailers kicked off the holiday shopping season.

Saturday and “Black Friday,” as the day after Thanksgiving has come to be known, drew in more shoppers than some retailers expected on the central Kenai Peninsula.

“Actually, our Friday and Saturday blew last year out of the water, so we’re very happy,” said Liz Schmitt, owner of Northcountry Fair in Soldotna. “We’re anticipating a good Christmas season. Usually those are our two big kickoff days.”

Schmitt said she wasn’t expecting any growth in sales this holiday shopping season compared to last year. Economic concerns like higher gasoline, heating and electricity costs, as well as trepidation over the national economy, were expected to prompt shoppers to tighten their grips on wallets. Sales have been slow overall this year, Schmitt said, but with gas prices back down under $3 a gallon this week, the allure of special deals enticed people to get out and spend.

“From the predictions in the paper, we were expecting it to be mostly just flat, the same as last year,” Schmitt said. “We were very happy, as we always are, to see our local customers.”

Local retailers may actually be benefiting from economic concerns — especially gas prices and the hikes in shipping costs that go with them — if they motivate shoppers to look for gifts in town, rather than heading to Anchorage or ordering off the Internet.

“We’re excited about people shopping local,” said Steve Beeson, owner of Beemun’s in Soldotna. “We’re the ones that are here for the individual and we do our best to have good prices and a decent selection as best as we can.”

The weekend after Thanksgiving typically isn’t the busiest at Beemun’s — not compared to the week before Christmas — but sales were still strong.

“It was a good for us,” Beeson said. “I think we’re tending to see more people stay local, which we appreciate as far as businesses go.”

Fred Meyer in Soldotna generally draws a considerable crowd Thanksgiving weekend with its annual sock sales, as well as other discounts. This year was better than last.

“I have been at this particular location almost five years now, and we had people at all our doors,” said Ron Delaney, manager.

The store typically gets a line of 50 to 75 shoppers waiting for the main entrance to open Friday. This year there were 250 queued up.

“By 5:30 my parking lot was full. I just had a couple carts left over. This place was nuts. But everyone seemed to be in their happy 5 a.m. shopping mode. For the most part they came in with a plan and left with a cartload,” Delaney said.

He said the number of customers was a surprise to him.

“We always plan very optimistically, but we’re ahead of where we thought we were going to be,” Delaney said. “I don’t think Alaskans are too worried about that ‘r’ word. It’s been a wonderful season so far.”

In the parking lot of Fred Meyer on Friday, several shoppers said they were planning on regulating their spending this season. But it may not be in ways that impact Thanksgiving weekend retail figures, especially if more people are drawn out to sales events.

“I’d say we’re all reining back a little bit. The way the year’s going with gas prices being so high at the beginning of the year and the stock market down, everybody’s concerned with what the economy is doing,” said Peter Barrett, of Kenai.

Tara Dunbar, of Soldotna, said she wasn’t going to buy as much as she normally would in her holiday shopping, and she paid close attention to prices and sales out of concern for the economy.

“I’m just nervous about it,” she said. “It hasn’t affected me that much, I’m just being a little extra cautious.”

On the other hand, Dunbar’s concern led her to be more focused on good deals, which prompted her to take part in early morning Black Friday shopping for the first time ever.

Judy Dixon, of Nikiski, was bargain hunting Friday, but said she’d pay full price for something if she thought she wouldn’t be able to get it otherwise.

“Living up here for so long, if you want something, you buy it when you see it or else you’re out of luck,” Dixon said.

In general, though, Dixon said she probably spent less than half this year what she did the day after Thanksgiving last year.

“Just the way the economy is, you think about maybe being a little more careful,” she said.

Anna Johns and Coline Kivi, of Nikiski, said they were cutting back on their spending for adults and focusing more on things people need, rather than frivolous purchases.

“For me, I don’t think it’s the economy so much as just trying to get Christmas back to reality,” Johns said. “It seems like we went so crazy for a little while. In the long run, we’ll have to cut back some.”

But there is one factor that may torpedo her plan.

“She’s a new grandma,” Kivi said.

Kids are also the reason Peter and LuAnn Barrett may go over their budget. They have three boys, now grown, and they come up with a plan for what they intend to get them. This year their plan calls for more useful items.

“But you go over a little bit because they’re your kids,” Peter said.

When sales signs beckon, it can be difficult to resit.

“It’s fun. We always do this every year,” Peter Barrett said of Black Friday. “You get in there and all the other stuff fades into the background and you think about what you want to buy and what to give other people.”

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